Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius was a Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher of the early 6th century. He was born about a year after Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman Emperor and declared himself King of Italy. Boethius entered public service under Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great, who later imprisoned and executed him in 524 on charges of conspiracy to overthrow him. While jailed, Boethius composed his Consolation of Philosophy, a philosophical treatise on fortune, death, and other issues, which became one of the most popular and influential works of the Middle Ages. As the author of numerous handbooks and translator of Plato and Aristotle, he became the main intermediary between Classical antiquity and following centuries.
Early life and rise to power
Boethius was born in Rome to a patrician family around 480, but his exact birth date is unknown. His family, the Anicii, included emperors Petronius Maximus and Olybrius and many consuls. His grandfather, a senator by the same name, was appointed as Praetorian Prefect of Italy. He died in 454, during the palace plot against magister militum Flavius Aetius. Boethius' father, Manlius Boethius, who was appointed consul in 487, died while Boethius was young. Another patrician, Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, adopted and raised Boethius, instilling in him a love for literature and philosophy.
Both Memmius Symmachus and Boethius were fluent in Greek, an increasingly rare skill at the time in the Western Empire; for this reason, some scholars believe that Boethius was educated in the East. According to John Moorhead, the traditional view is that Boethius studied in Athens, based on Cassiodorus' rhetoric describing Boethius' learning in one of his letters, though this does appear to be a misreading of the text for Boethius' simple facility with the works of Greek philosophers.
Pierre Courcelle has argued that Boethius studied at Alexandria with the Neo-Platonist philosopher Ammonius Hermiae. However, Moorhead observes that the evidence supporting Boethius having studied in Alexandria "is not as strong as it may appear", and adds that Boethius may have been able to acquire his formidable learning without travelling.
On account of his erudition, Boethius entered the service of Theodoric the Great at a young age and was already a senator by the age of 25. His earliest documented acts on behalf of the Ostrogothic ruler were to investigate allegations that the paymaster of Theodoric's bodyguards had debased the coins of their pay; to produce a waterclock for Theodoric to give to king Gundobad of the Burgunds; and to recruit a lyre-player to perform for Clovis, king of the Franks.
Boethius married his foster-father's daughter, Rusticiana; their children included two boys, Symmachus and Boethius.
During Theodoric's reign, Boethius held many important offices, including the consulship in the year 510, but Boethius confesses in his De consolatione philosophiae that his greatest achievement was to have both his sons made co-consuls for the same year 522, one representing the east and the other the west, and finding himself sitting "between the two consuls and as if it were a military triumph ".
In 522, the same year his two sons were appointed joint consuls, Boethius accepted the appointment to the position of magister officiorum, the head of all the government and court services.
Fall and death
In 520 Boethius was working to revitalize the relationship between the Roman See and the Constantinopolitan See; though still both a part of the same Church, disagreements had begun to emerge between them. This may have set in place a course of events that would lead to loss of royal favour. Five hundred years later, this continuing disagreement led to the East–West Schism in 1054, in which communion between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church was broken.
In 523 Boethius fell from power. After a period of imprisonment in Pavia for what was deemed a treasonable offence, he was executed in 524. The primary sources are in general agreement over the facts of what happened. At a meeting of the Royal Council in Verona, the referendarius Cyprianus accused the ex-consul Caecina Decius Faustus Albinus of treasonous correspondence with Justin I. Boethius leapt to his defense, crying, "The charge of Cyprianus is false, but if Albinus did that, so also have I and the whole senate with one accord done it; it is false, my Lord King."
Cyprianus then also accused Boethius of the same crime and produced three men who claimed they had witnessed the crime. Boethius and Basilius were arrested. First the pair were detained in the baptistery of a church, then Boethius was exiled to the Ager Calventianus, a distant country estate, where he was put to death. Not long afterwards Theodoric had Boethius' father-in-law Symmachus put to death, according to Procopius, on the grounds that he and Boethius together were planning a revolution, and confiscated their property.
"The basic facts in the case are not in dispute," writes Jeffrey Richards. "What is disputed about this sequence of events is the interpretation that should be put on them." Boethius claims his crime was seeking "the safety of the Senate". He describes the three witnesses against him as dishonorable: Basilius had been dismissed from Royal service for his debts, while Venantius Opilio and Gaudentius had been exiled for fraud. However, other sources depict these men in a far more positive light. For example, Cassiodorus describes Cyprianus and Opilio as "utterly scrupulous, just and loyal" and mentions they are brothers and grandsons of the consul Opilio.
Theodoric was feeling threatened by international events. The Acacian Schism had been resolved, and the Nicene Christian aristocrats of his kingdom were seeking to renew their ties with Constantinople. The Catholic Hilderic had become king of the Vandals and had put Theodoric's sister Amalafrida to death, and Arians in the East were being persecuted. Then there was the matter that with his previous ties to Theodahad, Boethius apparently found himself on the wrong side in the succession dispute following the untimely death of Eutharic, Theodoric's announced heir.
The method of Boethius' execution varies in the sources. Perhaps he was killed with an axe or a sword, or possibly he was clubbed to death, or possibly hanged. According to another version a rope was attached round his head and tightened till his eyes bulged out; then his skull was cracked. In any case, his remains were entombed in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro in Pavia, also the resting place of Augustine of Hippo. In Dante's The Divine Comedy, Paradise, Canto X, lines 121–29, the spirit of Boethius is pointed out by Saint Thomas Aquinas:
Now if thy mental eye conducted be
From light to light, as I resound their frame,
The eighth well worth attention thou wilt see.
The soul who pointed out the world's dark ways,
To all who listen, its deceits unfolding.
Beneath in Cieldauro lies the frame
Whence it was driven; -from woe and exile, to
This fair abode of peace and bliss it came.
Past historians have had a hard time accepting a sincere Christian who was also a serious Hellenist. Arnaldo Momigliano argues that "many people have turned to Christianity for consolation. Boethius turned to paganism. His Christianity collapsed—it collapsed so thoroughly that perhaps he did not even notice its disappearance." However, this view does not reflect the majority of current scholarship on the matter. The community that he was part of valued both classical and Christian culture.
Dates of composition
De consolatione philosophiae
Boethius's best known work is the Consolation of Philosophy De consolatione philosophiae, which he wrote most likely while in exile under house arrest or in prison while awaiting his execution. This work represented an imaginary dialogue between himself and philosophy, with philosophy personified as a woman. The book argues that despite the apparent inequality of the world, there is, in Platonic fashion, a higher power and everything else is secondary to that divine Providence.
Several manuscripts survived and these were widely edited, translated and printed throughout the late 15th century and later in Europe. Beyond Consolation of Philosophy, his lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy. Boethius intended to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato from the original Greek into Latin.
De topicis differentiis
His completed translations of Aristotle's works on logic were the only significant portions of Aristotle available in Latin Christendom from the sixth century until the 12th century. However, some of his translations such as his treatment of the topoi in The Topics were mixed with his own commentary, which reflected both Aristotelian and Platonic concepts.
Unfortunately, the commentaries themselves have been lost. In addition to his commentary on the Topics, Boethius composed two treatises on Topical argumentation, In Ciceronis Topica and De topicis differentiis. The first work has six books, and is largely a response to Cicero's Topica. The first book of In Ciceronis Topica begins with a dedication to Patricius. It includes distinctions and assertions important to Boethius's overall philosophy, such as his view of the role of philosophy as "establish our judgment concerning the governing of life", and definitions of logic from Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. He breaks logic into three parts: that which defines, that which divides, and that which deduces.
He asserts that there are three types of arguments: those of necessity, of ready believability, and sophistry. He follows Aristotle in defining one sort of Topic as the maximal proposition, a proposition which is somehow shown to be universal or readily believable. The other sort of Topic, the differentiae, are "Topics that contain and include the maximal propositions"; means of categorizing the Topics which Boethius credits to Cicero.
Book II covers two kinds of topics: those from related things and those from extrinsic topics. Book III discusses the relationship among things studied through Topics, Topics themselves, and the nature of definition. Book IV analyzes partition, designation and relationships between things such as pairing, numbering, genus, and species, etc.. After a review of his terms, Boethius spends Book V discussing Stoic logic and Aristotelian causation. Book VI relates the nature of the Topic to causes.
In Topicis Differentiis has four books; Book I discusses the nature of rhetorical and dialectical Topics together, Boethius's overall purpose being "to show what the Topics are, what their differentiae are, and which are suited for what syllogisms." He distinguishes between argument that which constitutes belief and argumentation that which demonstrates belief. Propositions are divided into three parts: those that are universal, those that are particular, and those that are somewhere in between. These distinctions, and others, are applicable to both types of Topical argument, rhetorical and dialectical. Books II and III are primarily focused on Topics of dialectic syllogisms, while Book IV concentrates on the unit of the rhetorical Topic, the enthymeme. Topical argumentation is at the core of Boethius's conception of dialectic, which "have categorical rather than conditional conclusions, and he conceives of the discovery of an argument as the discovery of a middle term capable of linking the two terms of the desired conclusion."
Not only are these texts of paramount importance to the study of Boethius, they are also crucial to the history of topical lore. It is largely due to Boethius that the Topics of Aristotle and Cicero were revived, and the Boethian tradition of topical argumentation spans its influence throughout the Middle Ages and into the early Renaissance: "In the works of Ockham, Buridan, Albert of Saxony, and the Pseudo-Scotus, for instance, many of the rules of consequence bear a strong resemblance to or are simply identical with certain Boethian Topics ... Boethius's influence, direct and indirect, on this tradition is enormous."
It was also in De Topicis Differentiis that Boethius made a unique contribution to the discourse on dialectic and rhetoric. Topical argumentation for Boethius is dependent upon a new category for the topics discussed by Aristotle and Cicero, and "nlike Aristotle, Boethius recognizes two different types of Topics. First, he says, a Topic is a maximal proposition maxima propositio, or principle; but there is a second kind of Topic, which he calls the differentia of a maximal proposition ..." Maximal propositions are "propositions known per se, and no proof can be found for these."
This is the basis for the idea that demonstration or the construction of arguments is dependent ultimately upon ideas or proofs that are known so well and are so fundamental to human understanding of logic that no other proofs come before it. They must hold true in and of themselves. According to Stump, "the role of maximal propositions in argumentation is to ensure the truth of a conclusion by ensuring the truth of its premises either directly or indirectly." These propositions would be used in constructing arguments through the Differentia, which is the second part of Boethius' theory. This is "the genus of the intermediate in the argument." So maximal propositions allow room for an argument to be founded in some sense of logic while differentia are critical for the demonstration and construction of arguments.
Boethius' definition of "differentiae" is that they are "the Topics of arguments ... The Topics which are the Differentiae of propositions are more universal than those propositions, just as rationality is more universal than man." This is the second part of Boethius' unique contribution to the field of rhetoric. Differentia operate under maximal propositions to "be of use in finding maximal propositions as well as intermediate terms," or the premises that follow maximal propositions.
Though Boethius is drawing from Aristotle's Topics, Differentiae are not the same as Topics in some ways. Boethius arranges differentiae through statements, instead of generalized groups as Aristotle does. Stump articulates the difference. They are "expressed as words or phrases whose expansion into appropriate propositions is neither intended nor readily conceivable", unlike Aristotle's clearly defined four groups of Topics. Aristotle had hundreds of topics organized into those four groups, whereas Boethius has twenty-eight "Topics" that are "highly ordered among themselves." This distinction is necessary to understand Boethius as separate from past rhetorical theories.
Maximal propositions and Differentiae belong not only to rhetoric, but also to dialectic. Boethius defines dialectic through an analysis of "thesis" and hypothetical propositions. He claims that " 'Should one marry?'." Dialectic has "dialectical topics" as well as "dialectical-rhetorical topics", all of which are still discussed in De Topicis Differentiis. Dialectic, especially in Book I, comprises a major component of Boethius' discussion on Topics.
Boethius planned to completely translate Plato's Dialogues, but there is no known surviving translation, if it was actually ever begun.
Boethius chose to pass on the great Greco-Roman culture to future generations by writing manuals on music, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic.
Several of Boethius' writings, which were hugely influential during the Middle Ages, drew on the thinking of Porphyry and Iamblichus. Boethius wrote a commentary on the Isagoge by Porphyry, which highlighted the existence of the problem of universals: whether these concepts are subsistent entities which would exist whether anyone thought of them, or whether they only exist as ideas. This topic concerning the ontological nature of universal ideas was one of the most vocal controversies in medieval philosophy.
Besides these advanced philosophical works, Boethius is also reported to have translated important Greek texts on the topics of the quadrivium His loose translation of Nicomachus's treatise on arithmetic De institutione arithmetica libri duo and his textbook on music De institutione musica libri quinque, unfinished contributed to medieval education. De arithmetica begins with modular arithmetic, such as even and odd, evenly even, evenly odd, and oddly even. He then turns to unpredicted complexity by categorizing numbers and parts of numbers. His translations of Euclid on geometry and Ptolemy on astronomy, if they were completed, no longer survive. Boethius made Latin translations of Aristotle's De interpretatione and Categories with commentaries. In his article The Ancient Classics in the Mediaeval Libraries, James Stuart Beddie cites Boethius as the reason Aristotle's works were popular in the Middle Ages, as Boethius preserved many of the philosopher's works.
De institutione musica
Boethius' De institutione musica was one of the first musical works to be printed in Venice between the years of 1491 and 1492. It was written toward the beginning of the sixth century and helped medieval authors during the ninth century understand Greek music. Like his Greek predecessors, Boethius believed that arithmetic and music were intertwined, and helped to mutually reinforce the understanding of each, and together exemplified the fundamental principles of order and harmony in the understanding of the universe as it was known during his time.
In "De Musica", Boethius introduced the threefold classification of music:
- Musica mundana – music of the spheres/world; this "music" was not actually audible and was to be understood rather than heard
- Musica humana – harmony of human body and spiritual harmony
- Musica instrumentalis – instrumental music
In De musica I.2, Boethius describes 'musica instrumentis' as music produced by something under tension e.g., strings, by wind e.g., aulos, by water, or by percussion e.g., cymbals. Boethius himself doesn't use the term 'instrumentalis', which was used by Adalbold II of Utrecht 975–1026 in his Epistola cum tractatu. It is also in these later texts that musica instrumentalis is firmly associated with audible music in general, including vocal music. Scholars have traditionally assumed that Boethius also made this connection, possibly under the header of wind instruments "administratur ... aut spiritu ut tibiis" , but Boethius himself never writes about "instrumentalis" as separate from "instrumentis" explicitly in his very brief description.
In one of his works within De institutione musica, Boethius said that "music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired."
During the Middle Ages, Boethius was connected to several texts that were used to teach liberal arts. Although he did not address the subject of trivium, he did write many treatises explaining the principles of rhetoric, grammar, and logic. During the Middle Ages, his works of these disciplines were commonly used when studying the three elementary arts. The historian R. W. Southern called Boethius "the schoolmaster of medieval Europe."
An 1872 German translation of "De Musica" was the magnum opus of Oscar Paul.
Boethius also wrote Christian theological treatises, which supported Catholicism and condemned Arianism and other heterodox forms of Christianity.
Five theological works are known:
- De Trinitate – "The Trinity", where he defends the Council of Chalcedon Trinitarian position, that God is in three persons who have no differences in nature. He argues against the Arian view of the nature of God, which put him at odds with the faith of the Arian King of Italy.
- Utrum Pater et filius et Spiritus Sanctus de divinitate substantialiter praedicentur – "Whether Father, Son and Holy Spirit are Substantially Predicated of the Divinity," a short work where he uses reason and Aristotelian epistemology to argue that the Catholic views of the nature of God are correct.
- Quomodo substantiae
- De fide catholica – "On the Catholic Faith"
- Contra Eutychen et Nestorium – "Against Eutyches and Nestorius," from around 513, which dates it as the earliest of his theological works. Eutyches and Nestorius were contemporaries from the early to mid-5th century who held divergent Christological theologies. Boethius argues for a middle ground in conformity with Roman Catholic faith.
His theological works played an important part during the Middle Ages in philosophical thought, including the fields of logic, ontology, and metaphysics.
History of reception
Lorenzo Valla described Boethius as the last of the Romans and the first of the scholastic philosophers. Despite the use of his mathematical texts in the early universities, it is his final work, the Consolation of Philosophy, that assured his legacy in the Middle Ages and beyond. This work is cast as a dialogue between Boethius himself, at first bitter and despairing over his imprisonment, and the spirit of philosophy, depicted as a woman of wisdom and compassion. "Alternately composed in prose and verse, the Consolation teaches acceptance of hardship in a spirit of philosophical detachment from misfortune".
Parts of the work are reminiscent of the Socratic method of Plato's dialogues, as the spirit of philosophy questions Boethius and challenges his emotional reactions to adversity. The work was translated into Old English by King Alfred, although Alfred's authorship of this Old English translation has recently been questioned,
"The Boethian Wheel" is a model for Boethius' belief that history is a wheel, a metaphor that Boethius uses frequently in the Consolation; it remained very popular throughout the Middle Ages, and is still often seen today. As the wheel turns, those who have power and wealth will turn to dust; men may rise from poverty and hunger to greatness, while those who are great may fall with the turn of the wheel. It was represented in the Middle Ages in many relics of art depicting the rise and fall of man. Descriptions of "The Boethian Wheel" can be found in the literature of the Middle Ages from the Romance of the Rose to Chaucer.
De topicis differentiis was the basis for one of the first works of logic in a western European vernacular, a selection of excerpts translated into Old French by John of Antioch in 1282.
Boethius is recognized as a martyr for the Catholic faith by the Roman Martyrology, though to Watkins "his status as martyr is dubious". His cult is held in Pavia, where Boethius's status as a saint was confirmed in 1883, and in the Church of Santa Maria in Portico in Rome. His feast day is 23 October. In the current Martyrologium Romanum, his feast is still restricted to that diocese. Pope Benedict XVI explained the relevance of Boethius to modern day Christians by linking his teachings to an understanding of Providence. He is also venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In popular culture
In the novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Boethius is the favorite philosopher of main character Ignatius J. Reilly. "The Boethian Wheel" is a theme throughout the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
Peter Glassgold translated Boethius's poems on the consolation of philosophy "out of the original Latin into a diverse historical Englishings diligently collaged," Sun and Moon Press, 1994.
C.S. Lewis references Boethius in chapter 27 of the Screwtape Letters.
Boethius also appears in the 2002 film "24 Hour Party People" where he is played by Christopher Eccleston. As Tony Wilson passes by, Boethius disguised as a beggar says, "It's my belief that history is a wheel. "Inconstancy is my very essence" -says the wheel- "Rise up on my spokes if you like, but don't complain when you are cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it is also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away."